Why the Women of Motley Project Matters

by Ilana Lever on

You tell me what a woman in work looks like. Because Google thinks we all look the same. Seriously. Google “Women at work”. Then click on “Images”. It’s a lot of glossy hair, even glossier meeting room tables, all-female meetings of participants that look like they’re under the age of thirty (yeah, right) - and a token hard hat. Then look at every woman around you and ask yourself – does that represent them?

First, those ‘faces of work’ – the corporate meeting room, the stiff shirts – don’t go anywhere to recognise the freelancers, the creatives, the unpaid domestic labour force that so many women participate in. But we were also interested in the visual uniformity of how these women looked. Because what women look like – how they dress for work – is a loaded subject. This was brought to the forefront most powerfully in the case of the secretary who got sent home for not wearing heels. But it permeates to the everyday. Men get the blessing of uniformity; in the city, it’s suits, and in the tech start up, jeans and a hoody, or shirt for special occasions. Women, less so.

My co-founder and I have had very different experiences of presentation in our professional careers.  When I started life as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed management consultant, I remember the group trip to high street retailer Next for the grey suits and striped shirts. But I really thought very little about workwear. I only had one negative experience - when I moved into industry, one very senior woman, who, when I complained about casual sexism in the office, said ‘What do you expect, if you wear short skirts and that much makeup?’ When I joined innocent, I revelled in the “wear what you like culture” – bare feet on astroturf floors, gym wear – I’d never felt more myself. So I’ve had a very relaxed approach to work clothing. I’d just assumed that the content or delivery of my work was more important. It turns out now that’s because I was able to.

My co-founder comes from the art world, where image is continuously under scrutiny. She told me of juniors spending their last paycheck on clothes they couldn’t afford to maintain the image required. A participation in high fashion is crucial to being taken seriously. Strong clean cut lines isn’t just what she wears, it’s a part of how she defines her professional image.

And so we started talking to women. Lots of women. About what they think a woman in the workplace should look like. About what they like to look like. And there certainly wasn’t a consolidated ‘female’ view. We saw a trend of women in the corporate world feeling far more confident to wear what they chose, feeling that what they wore was irrelevant to their work and feeling that their environment was more gender progressive; whereas the creative world was far more restrictive and pressured. Interestingly, several women said they wore high heels to feel more powerful, but were nervous about publishing this, for fear of coming across as anti-feminist or trivial.

Elizabeth, a reporter, said that working as a fashion journalist means that she was taken less seriously than some of her peers. The challenges of being a woman fundraising came up. Georgie, co-founder of Hexr put it most starkly - “I feel genuinely lucky to have male co-founders in this climate because I'm not sure I would have the funding that I do”. She says she took that for granted the corporate world. Michelle, co-founder of Peanut emphasised the need for a greater diversity of female role models in traditionally male work environments, like engineering – she said “If you can only be what you can see, then you have to see more variety.” In contrast, Abi, a barrister, spoke positively about the progession the bar had made towards flexible working, and Carmen, an investor, spoke about the flexibility that Venture Capital offered her in her working life.

We’ve started to capture these stories, but we’re sure there are many more. So if you feel there’s a story missing, or you’d like to speak to us about your experience, please email me at ilana@motley-london.com. We’d be delighted to have you.




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